April 17, 2021

"So he hauled a new generator into his S.U.V., strapped $800 worth of wood onto the vehicle’s roof and drove down into one of the city’s ravines in the middle of the night..."

"... to build... a wooden box — 7 feet 9 inches by 3 feet 9 inches — sealed with a vapor barrier and stuffed with enough insulation that, by his careful calculation, would keep it warm on nights when the thermometer dipped as low as minus 4 degrees Fahrenheit. He put in one window for light, and attached smoke and carbon monoxide detectors. Later, he taped a note to the side that read, 'Anyone is welcome to stay here.' Since then, Mr. Seivwright (pronounced Seeve-right), 28, has built about 100 similar shelters with a crew of 40 volunteers and more than $200,000 in donations. He has hauled them to parks across Toronto where homeless encampments have slumped into place — jarring reminders of the pandemic’s perversely uneven effects. The city’s bureaucrats called them illegal and unsafe, and stapled trespass and eviction notices to many, informing their residents that the city had rented out hotel rooms for them. They served Mr. Seivwright with an injunction, ordering him to stop putting the structures on city-owned land." 

From "The Carpenter Who Built Tiny Homes for Toronto’s Homeless/Khaleel Seivwright built himself a wooden shanty while living on a West Coast commune. Then he started building similar lodgings for homeless people in Toronto to survive the winter" (NYT).

The box is not much larger than a coffin (which tends to be 7.17 feet by 2.5 feet), but people prefer them even when they know "the city had rented out hotel rooms for them." A city can't allow a shantytown — far below its standards of habitability — to grow up its in its parks. But Seivwright is nevertheless celebrated.

I can see how building these squalid boxes and depositing them around town works as protest art, speaking loudly to the people of Toronto about the poor and desperate people who live in their midst. The city is providing hotel rooms, but if these people are in hotel rooms, the housed citizens of Toronto won't need to agonize about them.

To be in the box is to be inside but outside, seen but unseen. To be in a hotel room is to be thoroughly inside and unseen. That's what the city prefers. I don't think the article explains why it is what the homeless prefer.

(To comment, you can email me here.)

FROM THE EMAIL: Owen writes: 

Sorry, this guy sounds whack. These boxes are not Habitats for Humans but a kind of litter. There’s a reason why cities have governments, poor and stupid and cruel as they may be; and it’s to help manage the risks to health and safety that come with our common lives. Your analysis takes some account of the “City” as if it were a bumbling bureaucracy —easy to mock, that. But what about the *citizens* of the city? The suffering nameless individuals who pay the taxes, try to mind their ways and be decent to each other, try to build lives and raise families, try to *use the (few, crowded, worn) amenities* of the city? Who now find the homeless occupying their parks, cadging and foraging and leaving a trail of trouble, encouraged now by characters like this to repurpose the precious open space into flop-houses and latrines? Do the citizens not get a voice in this little hippie happening?

I think citizens are getting fed up with this. Not just in Toronto, either.